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Trip Report 3 weeks in Alaska, 20100

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My 17 year-old son and I spent three wonderful weeks in Alaska this past (2010) summer. As always, I found this site enormously helpful and am finally posting my rather long trip report, which I hope will be useful to someone else planning a trip. Feel free to ask questions either on this site or to my direct email if anything is unclear or if you just want more information about any particular aspect of the trip.

We flew from BWI to Philadelphia and from there, took a nonstop flight to Anchorage, arriving around 7pm on a clear day. The view from the window coming into Anchorage was spectacular, though I was glad to have been warned to expect turbulence. Before leaving the airport, we stopped to change shoes and put on jackets and then stepped out into a brisk summer evening (which for us was midnight) and caught a cab to the Arctic Adventure Hostel. I prefer staying at hostels because of the interesting people we meet. With the many rating/review sites available on-line, it’s not hard to pick a nice one. We stayed at the Arctic Adventure four nights: our first, last and two in between. The place was spotless and they provide a shuttle to/from the train station. They also stored our luggage, allowing us to take smaller backpacks for each leg of the journey. My only complaint was that it was noisy there – though the same was true in some hotels and B&B’s.

The Arctic Adventure was located in mid-town, close to the Seward bus depot (and the Moose’s Tooth) and a block away from the city bus line leading directly downtown. On that first night, we walked to the City Diner for a late dinner. It was pretty standard diner food; nothing exceptional, though the place was quite full, even at 10pm. If you’re in the mid-town area, looking for dinner (or just dessert), I recommend the Spenard Roadhouse, which we discovered later on our journey (try the creme brulee!).

The next day, we caught a bus downtown to eat breakfast and do a little sightseeing before our afternoon bus to Seward. The weather was still brisk and clear, so we had great views the whole way there. Seward is small enough to walk everywhere and we found the Moby Dick Hostel without much trouble. The next morning, we walked back to the “train wreck” (near the small boat harbor) where we caught the (Exit Glacier Guides) $10 veggie waste shuttle bus to Exit Glacier.

Every Saturday, a ranger leads an 8-hour hike 3500’ up to the Harding Ice field and I’d planned our arrival to take advantage of that. It drizzled most of the way, though the clouds let up on the way down and the view was spectacular. I didn't mind the drizzle because there was such varied plant life to see on the way up. We didn't see any bears, but did see one marmot. The second half of the uphill hike was through snow and I was glad that I had stuffed a pair of mini crampons into my pack because it was a long way down if you slipped and fell (I’m sure that no one but me worried about that). There were 16 of us at the beginning, but only eight finished; those who showed up with tennis shoes and bought the thin plastic ponchos sold in the gift shop had to turn back when we hit the snow. At the top, there was a small "warming hut" where we stopped to get out of the wind and eat our lunches.

Although it rained and visibility was low, this hike was my absolute favorite experience of the entire 3-week trip! Looking back at the photos, it’s easy to see why; it was a wonderful adventure, with stunning views up close and even through the fog. I highly recommend this trip, but be sure to take hiking boots, rain gear, water and a hearty snack.

After our hike, we moved from the Moby Dick Hostel to the Van Gilder Hotel for the next two nights. This was one of many times, I used a 2 for 1 Toursaver coupon, which I learned about on this site. (In all, I saved about $850 and have noted where I used them in this report.) The Van Gilder is a charming, historic hotel – with so much more character than the Best Western around the corner. Our second day in Seward was exceptionally bright and sunny, which was perfect for our 6-hour cruise through Resurrection Bay (2-for-1). I did hear that overcast weather is better for spotting wildlife, but this was our best opportunity to see Aialik Glacier – one of the most active glaciers - so I was grateful for the sunshine. On the way out of the harbor, we saw a bald eagle nested just 30' away. As we continued the tour, we stopped three or four times to see whales and also saw lots of sea otters sunning themselves on rocks, plus a ton of various birds (including Puffins). The best part was when we stopped at Aialik Bay, turned off the motors and floated in silence while we listened to the thunderous pops and cracks of the calving glacier and watched the massive chunks of ice falling into the sea.

On our final day in Seward, we took the now familiar coastline walk (where we saw another otter) to the harbor. After a hearty breakfast at the Train Wreck (try their green chili for lunch), we walked back to visit the Sea Life Center, then on to the library to use the Internet and watch the movie shown daily about the 1964 earthquake. I had booked the Gold Star Service for our return train trip to Anchorage that evening and we had great views all the way back. I especially enjoyed seeing a section of houses just outside Anchorage, where planes were parked in every back yard and the yards merged to form one long grass landing strip.

The next day, we rented a car at the downtown Avis and began our tour of the Mat-su Valley. Our first stop was the visitor center in Palmer (be sure to check out the garden!) where I asked what there was to see in Wasilla (and whether a detour was worthwhile). I was told that the biggest Walmart in America could be found there and opted to skip it. Instead, we visited the Reindeer Farm and the Muskox Farm, each within 15 minutes of Palmer. If you want to splurge on an expensive authentic Alaskan souvenir, I highly recommend an item knitted from the qiviut, which is the undercoat shed by the Muskoxen. Headbands start at over $200 and are softer and warmer than cashmere. It was out of my budget so I opted for a raffle ticket (keep your fingers crossed for me in December!)

Hatcher Pass was especially beautiful and we enjoyed our self-guided tour of Independence Mine. We drove on to the Long Rifle Inn for the night. The hotel was very basic, but the view of Matanuska Glacier outside their restaurant window was spectacular! The next day we drove on to Chitina to meet our Wrangell Mountain Air pilot who’d be taking us to McCarthy (2-for-1). Both of us were a little nervous about the plane ride, especially after our stop at the Wrangell-St. Elias visitor center where they showed a movie with lots of dramatic aerial shots that made our stomachs flutter. But our pilot quickly put us at ease and made the ride a lot of fun.

We stayed at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge (2-for-1), which is quite nice and we enjoyed the evening programs they offered. The lodge serves wonderful food, but also consider having a meal at the pizza bus down the road where you’ll get good food and a great view from the picnic tables outside. We also enjoyed the family style seating at the lodge and were lucky to be seated with newlyweds who were given a special cake (and song) that they shared with the entire table. The next day, we took a half-day hike on Root Glacier (2-for-1). This was not scary or strenuous and a half-day gives you plenty of time to see and experience the glacier and then take a tour of the mill when you get back. Our guide, Rebecca, grew up in nearby Kenny Lake where her grandparents had settled as part of the homesteading movement back in the 60’s. Many of the guides and other summer workers were not from Alaska, so I appreciated hearing about her experience growing up and now living there.

On our final morning, we rode the shuttle to McCarthy where we had breakfast at The Potato. This was my son’s favorite meal and the best cup of coffee I had on on the whole trip! (As the guy there said, Alaskans are strangely indifferent to coffee and you get both the best and the worst.) After our return flight to Chitina, we drove the gorgeous route into Valdez, making lots of stops to take pictures of glaciers and waterfalls. On our first night, we stopped by the salmon hatchery where we watched salmon trying to get over the weir while dozens of bald eagles circled overhead and sea lions gorged themselves nearby. After a while, a pink espresso truck drove up and directed us to the other side of the bridge where we found a mother bear and three cubs eating fish just 20' away! This evening ranked close to the top on the list of “best experiences” for both me and my son.

The next morning, we got up early for our kayaking trip to Columbia Glacier. It was another gorgeous day – perfect for a day on the water. There is a bottle-neck that traps chunks of ice that have fallen from the glacier, forming an area congested with ice, but loose enough to kayak through. We were taken to the site by boat, divided into two groups of six (two per kayak) and given a few lessons such as "turning on a dime" before we kayaked over to the area in front of the glacier where we quietly paddled around the ice for a couple of hours, listening to the tinkling drips and occasional creak and crash as chunks broke and fell into the water. We then paddled back to the pick up location to meet the boat that took us back to the harbor. We returned to the hatchery that evening, hoping to see another bear. No luck, but the tide was in and the sea lions close enough to (almost) make up for it. We did enjoy watching all the people fishing where the bear had been the night before. If you are planning to camp, it’s a great location for catching your dinner – and that might be the freshest fish you’ll find. (I had been warned and found it true that fresh fish was hard to find in local restaurants.)

We had thick fog the next day and despite the on-board Park Ranger’s best efforts, the five-hour ferry ride from Valdez to Whittier was hypnotic and many simply slept. When we got to Girdwood, we were glad to get out and hike the Winner Creek Trail. This is a very easy hike, but we were running out of time so only went 2.5 miles to the hand tram - the goal of our hike. The tram is a big metal box with a door, suspended over a river by a thick cable. A rope threads through the box and from inside, you pull the rope to get across the gorge. We started out just fine. I had gloves and was doing the pulling while my son took pictures. Near the end, I was getting tired and told him to pull, but all of a sudden we were flying on our own - thanks to a man on the other side who decided to help.

We'd planned to ride the tram to the top of Mt. Alyeska; it's a 7 minute ride 3900' up in a cable car made to hold up to 60 people. It was so foggy that day and the next morning that we decided to skip it and I let my son sleep as long as he wanted (11:20) for the first time on this trip - while I chatted with the other hostellers and shared stories/tips about what we'd seen and done. We then headed into Anchorage - where I was very happy to return the rental car - and spent the afternoon in the Anchorage Museum (where I had a coupon, but forgot to use it). It’s a nice museum, but we both got a little "museum fatigue" after an hour - and enjoyed stopping to see the movie about grizzly bears, which got us in the right mood for the trip to Denali the following day.

The train ride to Denali was less interesting than other segments of our trip, in part because of the dreary weather. The fog continued into the next day when we had our 11-hour bus ride to Wonder Lake (and back). With the rain/fog, we were unable to see Denali (apparently only 20% of people do), but we did see lots of wildlife: something like 12 bears, 11 moose, 26 sheep, 8 caribou (I'm making these numbers up but the woman behind me was keeping count so they're not that far off). On our second day, we visited the dog kennels, went on a ranger talk/hike, saw a movie and took a short hike down to see a large beaver dam. We stayed at the Mountain Morning Hostel, where we had our own cabin and slept soundly each night. The Hostel provides a shuttle, so we had no problem getting back and forth, but after a visit to the local store, we did regret not buying our groceries back in Anchorage. Again, we met lots of interesting people from all over the world.

After returning to Anchorage for a final night at the Arctic Adventure, we visited the Saturday market where we bought gifts and souvenirs and then caught an afternoon bus - stopping at the Conservation Center on the way - to Whittier where we boarded a Princess cruise ship for a seven-day cruise through the Southeast Passage to Vancouver, BC.

This was our first cruise and while in the planning stages, I was reluctant to “give up the reins” and let someone else set the agenda. However, I really wanted to see Glacier Bay National Park and the cruise offered the easiest way to get there at about the same cost (or less) than using the state ferry system. Besides, after two weeks on our own I thought we’d enjoy a little pampering – and this turned out to be true! This cruise included two days at sea, one day in Glacier Bay and three days in port at Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. The day in Glacier Bay began with National Park Service Rangers boarding our ship to provide lectures, demos and narration about what we were seeing. As with all the NPS Rangers I met on this trip, I was moved by the respect they showed and passion they shared about the natural world and our place within it. At times, the Ranger providing narration would stop and play his wooden flute while we made our way through the ice toward the massive glaciers. It was an incredibly clear and sunny day and his words and music made it quite magical.

The stop in Skagway was my least favorite. The town has a population of about 800 and with three or four cruise ships each dropping off 3000 passengers, it was a bit like Disneyworld. We had booked the four-hour round-trip train ride on the White Pass and Yukon route train. It was fun and the views were great - though by then we had become a bit spoiled by the abundance of wonderful views and were less appreciative than we would have been at the start of our trip.

Juneau was a bigger town and better able to absorb all the cruise passengers. We opted to take a city bus out to Mendenhall Glacier. It took a lot longer, but gave us a better feel for Juneau and the people who live there (including a guy on the bus who went on a tirade about how much he hated tourists!). There’s also an express bus, which we used for the ride home since by then, I was worried about the time. Although we’d seen a LOT of glaciers by then, I have to say that Mendenhall was the prettiest one of all, with its blue ice and the massive waterfall to the side. On the way back to the ship, we rode the Mt. Roberts Tramway and enjoyed the views from above.

Ketchikan was my favorite port city. We stopped by the visitor center and picked up the “walking tour” brochure, which we then followed for the entire route, taking us away from the crowds and the shopping. Ketchikan is built on a steep incline with many boardwalks and steps serving as streets. A stream runs throughout and we had our absolute best views of salmon – and since watching the salmon was high on my “to do” list, Ketchikan was for me a perfect ending to our Alaska adventure.

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